Metastatic breast cancer can make navigating motherhood even more challenging than it typically is. Here’s how three moms cope with this diagnosis.
Motherhood can be challenging, even under the best of circumstances. The moment your kids come into the world, their lives and well-being become your main priority.
Your life is now about the milestones of your babies, and the 2 hours of sleep you got the night before will have to do. You are the mama bear eagerly awaiting their first steps, first words, and the first day of school. You don’t want to miss any of it.
But what happens when you’re suddenly faced with a metastatic breast cancer (MBC) diagnosis? How do you navigate being a mother when you don’t know for certain how long you will be in your children’s lives?
Adriana Capozzi was 35 and a busy mom of three (ages 1, 2, and 5) when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy, hopeful that she had done everything in her power to prevent the cancer from coming back.
But despite her aggressive treatment protocol, she discovered the cancer had spread to her brain 13 months later and was now incurable. Upon receiving the news from her oncologist, Capozzi’s first thought was how this would affect her kids, now 2, 3, and 6, and still very much needing their mom.
“They had been through so much already,” she said, “and now they are going to lose so much more. They deserve a mom [that’s] healthy, not dying. They were getting so much taken away.” The doctors gave her a prognosis of 2 years, but Capozzi’s a fighter who didn’t want to miss a minute with her kids. She’s now approaching 7 years since being diagnosed with MBC.
She has done everything she can to maximize the time with her crew, celebrating small moments previously taken for granted. Capozzi attends every hockey game and volunteers at her kids’ school just to get as much time with them as possible.
Treatments for MBC are challenging and can limit the amount of energy you have to do anything. But Capozzi has learned not to be so hard on herself when she can’t do it all.
“Kids remember you being present,” Capozzi said. “If you have the energy for that walk, go for it. If all you have is energy to cuddle on the couch with a movie, do that.”
A terminal cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and isolating, but for Capozzi, being a mom has been fundamental in helping her cope and move forward. “From day 1, I have said my kids have saved me,” she said.
On those days when all she wanted to do was stay in bed and feel sorry for herself, it was her kids that helped her keep going, reminding her there was much more life to live. “They didn’t look at me any different; they needed a mom,” Capozzi said. “So I would get up on days I didn’t want to and get moving … I think about all the time I would have wasted in bed if it wasn’t for them.”
Like Capozzi, Cara Snyder was completely shocked when she was told of her MBC diagnosis a mere year after her original breast cancer diagnosis. Her first diagnosis at 39 years old was when she was 35 weeks pregnant with her second child.
When most new moms would be dealing with sleep training or colic, 3 weeks after giving birth, Snyder jumped into chemotherapy treatment. She worked so hard that year to take care of herself, and then one morning, she woke up unable to move her left leg.
A brain MRI revealed a large brain tumor — her breast cancer had metastasized. Her oncologist gave her 3 months to live, but Snyder wasn’t having that, telling the doctor, “Well, that doesn’t work for me!” Snyder had two boys at home who needed her, 1 and 4 years old.
She’s there for her kids as much as she can, but oftentimes, the treatments required are risky. When Snyder had her second craniotomy, she awoke from the procedure unable to use the left side of her body, her dominant side.
“It was so devastating,” Snyder said. “I couldn’t walk, get on the floor to play with [my kids], chase them in the yard, play hide and seek, lift them, bathe them, or drive them to school.” Her sons were only 2 and 5, and instead of getting to do all the mom things, she had now shifted to being a professional patient shuttling to and from doctors’ appointments and tests.
“If you have the energy for that walk, go for it. If all you have is energy to cuddle on the couch with a movie, do that.”
She’s currently still in rehab and can only walk short distances with the help of a quad cane. “It’s been crushing to lose so much independence,” Snyder said. “I just want to be a normal mom with normal mom problems. I’d love to complain about a bad hair day or running late to school drop-off.”
To help her young sons (now 3 and 7) process all this, the kids have weekly appointments with a child psychologist specializing in cancer. They’re both aware their mother has cancer and is getting chemotherapy. Helping them deal with their emotions in kid-focused ways has helped calm their anxieties and fears. “It’s very child-led,” Snyder said. “Last week they identified their different emotions and threw water balloons at the ones that made them feel yucky.”
Snyder is also very grateful for the help and support from family and friends who’ve set up meal trains, helped with childcare, and ran errands. She’s amazed by the support she’s received from other mothers in her community.
“Being a mother has really given me a beautiful network to reach out to,” Snyder said. “I was able to set up a meal train that was distributed through my son’s school, and many people signed up to support us when needed most.”
And despite all the challenges, Snyder will never stop fighting. “My family is the reason I keep getting up and dusting myself off and forge on. Fighting cancer is the hardest thing I have ever done. But now, 4 years in, I have proven I can do hard things.”
Inessa G. is still trying to process life with MBC, after receiving her diagnosis in February 2022. Just 3 years before, when she was only 32 years old (and 5 days after her son’s first birthday), she was diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer caused by a phyllodes tumor of the breast. It’s so rare that less than 1% of breast cancers are caused by phyllodes tumors and most phyllodes tumors are benign.
She was also 6 weeks pregnant with her second child at the time. She never imagined that someone so young could face such a rare form of breast cancer. Inessa had a single mastectomy when she was 13 weeks along, and then after the baby was born, she had several rounds of radiation. Breast cancer caused by phyllodes tumors doesn’t typically respond to chemotherapy treatment.
“Being a mother has really given me a beautiful network to reach out to.”
Her team of doctors would monitor her over the next few years, but Inessa was excited to get back to life and her two little babies. But then 3 years later, she discovered the cancer had spread to her spine and hip.
The goals that she and her husband were excited to pursue for their family were indefinitely paused. “When my husband and I first decided to have children, we made careful plans and shared dreams of what our family life will look like,” Inessa said. “My MBC diagnosis was like taking a sledgehammer to the carefully designed mosaic of our family life.”
But Inessa is excited to fill every day as much as she can. “Being a mother gives me the strength to keep fighting where there is little hope,” she said, “so that not a moment of my time with my kids is wasted.”
There’s no doubt that these women are real-life superheroes, fighting for their lives and more time with their kids every day. They are living with MBC and taking life as it comes as best they can. Here are some key takeaways and advice from Inessa and Cara to help anyone else navigating a terminal cancer diagnosis while trying to survive and thrive as a mom.
Mothers with MBC, especially those with young kids, face challenges many mothers couldn’t even imagine. But they will never quit fighting. Their kids need them, and as long as they are alive, they will make memories that their kids can cherish forever.
Fact checked on August 25, 2022
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